tv The Presidency James K. Polks Politics Times CSPAN August 13, 2019 10:40am-12:19pm EDT
center of intelligence discusses his book "super minds." live saturday, august 31st at 10:00 a.m. eastern on book tv on c-span 2. "american history tv" continues our feature on the politics and times of president polk with a look at his relationship with previous president martin van buren ask his role as a wartime chief executive. this panel was part of a conference at the university of tennessee that marked the completion of a 60-year project to assemble and edit president polk's papers. this is an hour and a half. >> i teach at grand rapids, michigan. this is known as the many sides of james k. polk. we're going to explore five of the sides of james k. polk. i'd like to start with our introductions in a moment. so what we'll each do is speak
for 15 minutes, no more, maybe a little less would be allowed. and then we'll ask questions of each other, and then open to the audience and we should have substantial time for question and answer at the end. first, i'd like to introduce mark cheattam who is going to speak on leadership in 1844. he's professor of history at cumberland university and project director of the papers of martin van buren. his most recent book is "the coming of democracy", presidential campaigning in the age of jackson. >> thank you all for showing up. hopefully no one naps in the post lunch euphoria. thank you to michael, in particular, for putting this
together. i also want to thank sdak kinslow. when he was an intern, he did some research on the respon correspondence that was helpful for this paper. so thank you, zach. and i also want to lower expectations. this is my first into giving my thoughts on the book i'm writing on the election for the so there's lots of holes i uncovered. so maybe you can help me with that. in any case, the 1844 presidential campaign marked a transition in the democratic party leadership as martin van buren seemed to control the party. the two were together during the early years and appeared poised at least to some to perhaps inhabit the ticket of the democratic party in 1844. van buren's unwillingness to agree to the immediate
annexation of texas signalled his demise as the presumptive candidate for the democratic party and open the door for polk, who was considered the front runner for the vice presidential slot to the top of of the ticket at the party's national convention in baltimore. while he supported polk in 1844 campaign, his inability to influence the cabinet picks ended their relationship. so just a little bit of background. they both entered congress in the 1820s. van buren before polk. they seemed to have had a relationship that was based largely on loyalty to jackson and that emerges most significantly in the correspondence during jackson's second term. during the presidency, polk gave van buren advice on his response to the panic of 1837 and on polk
was in favor. in any case as we approach the 1840 election, van buren appeared to be the democratic nominee heading into that campaign. and polk emerged as a possible vice presidential nominee in the run up to 1840. particularly after polk won the gubernatorial election in tennessee in 1839. polk ask his allies began to float his name as a possible replacement for johnson, the sitting vice president. johnson, if you know anything about him, had some issues in his personal life that led some democrats to question his place on the ticket in 1840 during what was going to be a contentious campaign, it appeared. in any case even though the s r stars seemed to be aligned for polk, things fell apart fairly quickly after the whig national convention. the whigs nominated harrison, who was a war of 1812 hero,
which made johnson's own experience in heroism in 1812 much more important for the democrats than polk's experience as speaker of the house and as democratic congressman and tennessee's governor. ultimately, the democratic convention decided not to nominate a vice presidential candidate. in '36 there was a contentious contest so they decided to avoid that he did campaign for van buren in 1840 across the state. did an effective job, but unfortunately, as jackson said, the whigs log cabin thwarted the attempts to carry the mantle as the president for a second term. as van buren looked around because he was no quitter, he undertook a journey in 1842 to several southern western state incident colluding tennessee.
he spent time with jackson at the hermitage and made his way to columbia to visit with polk and other democratic allies in middle tennessee. while staying with polk, polk and his friends expected that van buren would discuss the 44 presidential election and they hoped that perhaps he would even act polk to join him on the ticket. that did not happen. i solemnly assure, you polk wrote, that not a word either verbally or in writing has this hour passed between us on the subject. nor had he heard any conversations to that effect having heard elsewhere during the tennessee leg of the trip. ultimately, van buren's visit to tennessee hurt both men, because it allows whigs and jealous democrats to claim the two orchestrated a political agreement that underdut their commitment to a popular conviction even though there's no evidence of that. it appeared he remained the
presumptivive choice of most democrats, but not all was well within the democratic party. some democrats blamed their problems on van buren's administration and began to look to cass as an option. heeling herbed in the shadows and continued to be a thorn in the side of the party. polk proposed there may be a clash between the friends of van buren that cannot be set is theed. he told proolk your prospect is best. the friends are democrats and could agree upon you. unfortunately, polk lost the gubernatorial election of 1841 and then last again in 1843. some democrats blamed van buren for polk's loss and began moving
into the cass camp. what's interesting is that some of those democrats also proposed simply replacing van buren with cass and keeping polk on the second slot on the democratic ticket in 1844. although jackson initially waivered in his support. he needed polk to win tennessee. when the general assembly met later that fall, he personally pressured allies to support his vice presidential shot. his strategy was to have tennessee democrats endorse him for the vice presidency is but not to issue a preference for the top of the ticket. he needed to make sure that polk was his running mate. the tennessee democratic convention that met in november
'43 followed polk's strategy. 12 to 13 delegates were pro polk. van buren remained the front runner in many minds. van buren wrote jackson, quote, the prospects now are that we shall have a harmonious convention. poor guy. in respect to the presidential candidate. it's quite certain that the question of the vice presidency will be decided upon the best spirit. this all should be satisfied. if van buren looked carefully, he would have noticed that the cracks in his support remained wider. johnson was a close friend of polk and adviser in '44 told polk, quote, the cause is is not flattering of the commencement. it will both injure him. they might be giants are wrong.
they hoped to show they were opposed to texas in order to ad to texas in order to add it to reasons to oppose his nomination. polk agreed the abolition agitation is now, as it has ever been, political in its object and design, and he regretted southern democratic opposition to van buren's nomination. still, his attention early in '44 remained primarily on the vice presidential nomination. as spring approached, several challengers emerged, including richard m. johnson, commodore charles stewart. google him, i had to. louis cass and john c. calhoun. he never teams to go away. the death of secretary of state upshire aboard the uss princeton on february 28th changed everything regarding the convention and its nominees.
tyler's appointment of john c. calhoun as secretary of state tloed a revival of the slavery question and jeopardized the careful behind the scenes work on annexation. calhoun had already planned to make texas annexation the main issue to use against presumptive would-be nominee henry clay in '44 and now had tremendous power to shake not only the focus of the general campaign but also of the democrats' nomination process. van buren and calhoun did not like one another. calhoun is looking to tor pedo van buren's nomination. >> already seen as a campaign issue, annexation became more important in the public eye. van buren began to receive queries from individuals and groups of democrats across the country asking for his opinion on annexation and specifically media annexation. and he chose to respond to one particular request by mississippi representative william henry hammond. van buren's tloert hammet which was published and written in van buren's usual meandering and
ponderous manner if you haven't read any of the letters not only is the handwriting terrible but he goes on and on and on and on. much like my students do when they're trying to reach their word count. but in any case, van buren's letter outlined his opposition to the immediate annexation of texas. taking a stance against immediate annexation may have pleased some of his friends but doomed his chances of receiving the democrats' nomination. in april, jackson -- in may jackson asked polk to visit him at the hermitage which he did do. during his meet with jackson, the general pronounced to polk, immediate annexation is not only important but indispensable. van buren and jackson's estimation had committed what jackson called a fatal error. jackson believed that the democrats needed to nominate solid annexation man from the southwest and in his view polk fit the bill. polk surprise at jackson's
vemomev vehement declaration. he told kate johnson they should support van buren in baltimore which would position him as the new yorker's running mate and polk proclaimed i've stood by mr. v.b. and will stand by him as long as there is hope, unless, polk said, that if van buren's efforts failed, then perhaps he could become the top choice for the democrats. he was in his friend's hands, polk said, and they can use my name in any way they think proper in baltimore. the democratic national convention did not go van buren's way. the delegates chose to institute the two-thirds rule which means van buren who possessed a majority of the votes was not able to win the nomination. on the ballot, polk's name appeared as a contender for the presidency. and on the ninth ballot, he became the choice of the democrats. following polk nomination, he and van buren did not directly communicate during the '44
campaign but van buren publicly did support his party's ticket. he did so primarily in new york and part of it was not just because of the democrats. van buren was trying to help elevate his son john in new york politics. and some part of his machinations were to help his son. polk's victory provided an opportunity for reconciliation between him and van buren, however. but that did not happen. the two fell out over polk's cabinet choices, and if you read the correspondence between polk and van buren from january through early march of '45 you get a really good sense of how frustrated van buren is with not being able to force polk to make the right choices, and you get a sense of the frustration polk had with a man who lost the presidency and couldn't even get the nomination telling him what to do as he's about to come into office. and so i won't give you all the details, but i want to give you one example. this comes later in the process.
essentially van buren wanted new york to have the top cabinet post which was secretary of state. polk vacillates and wants to choose frshy for new york and lots of things going on there. eventually as polk is traveling, van buren sends more and more advice and tells polk, you need to choose benjamin butler who was a good friend, former law partner of van buren. you need to choose him for the state department. he wrote van buren about that post and he ed he had the letters in hand but the landscape had changed. upon taking survey of the whol ground i found great difficulties interposed that necessitated other appointments. and eventually you heard buchanan will serve as secretary of state. but polk still wants van buren's advice but only for the war
department. he asked van buren, who do you want? marcy was on the other side of the democratic party in new york, the anti-van buren side. and so van buren doesn't want marcy. van buren writes back. tells polk, your vacillation has caused me embarrassment and pain and makes some other suggesti suggestions, but not marcy. what's really interesting, without even waiting for van buren's reply, polk moved ahead and he wound up appointing marcy after butler declined to take the war department and as polk explained it to van buren, if i've committed an error, i can only say it was unintentional. the changes of positions of the members of the cabinet seem to be imperative upon me and promises to send a full are explanation. the polk editors noted, and as you can see on the library of congress copy, on the back of polk letter promising a fuller explanation, van buren wrote the promised explanations have not been made.
what happens after this, polk through an intermeediary offers to make an ambassadorial appointment for van buren. van buren refuses. the two men do not correspond except for two letters polk stands to van buren containing two of his annual messages. he writes back two quick notes saying i have received these and that's really the iend of their correspondence. polk was very bitter about this and in '48, will not only be nominated by the barnburners faction in new york for the presidency, but also by the free will party. van buren does go back to the democrats and thus ends their relationship. thank you. i would like to introduce kelly houston jones into speak
on polk and the business of slavery. dr. jones is the assistant professor of history at arkansas tech. she writes about the history of slavery, mostly in the trans-mississippi south. >> i would also like to thank the conference organizers and thank zachary kinslow. i am probably the least polk person here. i come to this from an interest that was begun when i was researching the history of slavery in arkansas. and by the way, since we're on camera, a weary land slavery on the ground in arkansas will be published by the university of georgia press.
so get that little plug in there. and so one of the things i notice about the patterns in that history was a prevalence of absentee-owned plantations on the arkansas side of the mississippi river. and when i was having one of those really great conversations that you have with students, with zachary kinslow, he said, well, you know, this guy knows polk, okay? he said, you know, james k. polk was an absentee planter. and somewhere i knew, had thought of polk as a slave holder but just wasn't really on my radar that he sort of fit this and would be a very documented fit for this interest that i had. and so, as i explored that, i learned a whole bunch about a lot of polks who are buying plantations in arkansas, in north louisiana and, you know, of course, in mississippi. so sort of how i ended up in this. so this conference has given me a chance to kind of indulge in
this sort of new like side interest that i have. absentee plantations. now this talk would probably be better titled, i probably should have called it the polks and the business of slavery, right, because very little of it is about james k. polk himself, but it's just about that really tangled family tree of slave-holding polks that we learned about this morning. so james k. polk is a part of this history of absentee planters, and i call them 19th century portfolio planters. we think of portfolio plantations as sort of a 20th century agricultural development so i'm trying to be provocative on purpose and call -- this is a portfolio investment. if you never go to that plantation. sometimes the overseer is begging them, please come and see how good things are going because i need a contract for next year. and a lot of times these guys aren't going. they don't really know what's going on. that's an investment and that's what it is.
so when i found in looking at these patterns is this is actually a much more extensive part of this history than i had given credence to in my research. quite a few of these absentee holdings. it's a little difficult to find out when it's an absentee-held plantation like some of them are more obvious than others. if people have questions about like what i defined as absentee and not, we can hash that out. in my preliminary research on this, i found that in chico county, arkansas, which is southeast arkansas, there are -- i use a very conservative estimate for my looking at the census, about 12% of the enslaved people in that county were on absentee-owned plantations. like, okay, that's not huge, but i'm getting a sense that there's a significant part of the story that maybe we're missing. there are places where there is no white family in the big house. there is no big house, right?
there's an overseer's little house. and that's the end of it. now this pattern has been more documented by historians when it comes to naches. so people are living there and, of course, owning these plantations across the river. so we've -- that's a little more well documented. i found for sure that about 24, 25% of the enslaved people in those counties there in louisiana are held pie absentee owners across the river. but anthony k. estimated that it's probably about half, okay, of them. a little bit of a different situation because of the proximity. and so what i'd like to do by exploring the polks and stuff is kind of position columbia, tennessee, into this. a planter who lives somewhere like columbia, tennessee, and
owns a plantation in southeast arkansas. that really is absent. that really does sort of like change the landscape. so we're finding that the more i dig into it, the more polks i find who are taking part in this kind of stuff. and it's a network coming out of columbia, tennessee, that, you know, polk and friends are involved in. so gideon pillow is one of these guys. you know, we think of gideon pillow in other contexts, but i'm revisiting people that i thought i knew in the context of absentee plantations. so that's the network that james k. polk is plugged into. that's the sort of side of polk that i'm looking to show you today. one of the most successful of these polk relatives, these are like cousins, and i was already intimidated by the polk family tree as it was. and after this morning's presentation, where we heard that like the go-to books i've been using are like wrong a lot. so now i'm just like so just --
bear with me if i'm not getting some of these connections exactly right, and, in fact, i may let you guess. so alan j. polk is one of the most successful of these planters. he had 78 slaves in philip county, arkansas in 1860. 100,000 in personal estate. $50,000 in real estate. his wife anna polk is there and there's a family with the overseer on the place. and so he's one of that's planters who has sort of a home based plantation but then other plantations in other spots. and that's a fairly common part of the trend that i'm seeing. in of these planters will actually spend time in different parts of the year at the different plantations and some of them never go. and they don't want to have going to do with it. alan j. polk is one of these really rich planters. sometimes he lives in columbia. sometimes in north carolina. sometimes in kentucky. sometimes he's in mississippi n
sometimes he's in arkansas. so that's the polk network that we're talking about here. he probably also has a plantation in tunica county, mississippi. 200 enslaved people on that place. there's another place in that same county that i think might be him, but i'm not sure because they're doing the initials a.j. and so i'm trying to keep it sort of conservative and not put it down unless i know for sure. but i suspect. i smell alan j. polk on that other plantation. george w. polk, and son of colonel william polk lived in murray county. he also had 88 slaves in chico county, arkansas. didn't live there or at least not all the time. married into the hillier family and he and john polk were talking about one of the wealthy planter families in southeast arkansas. and may have also had some mississippi plantations as well. there's a hamilton polk also who
has got a large operation in mississippi. and he may have as many as three that he's got. and one of those seems to be a joint venture which we see that james k. polk did this with his brother-in-law. purchase enslaved people to put on it and sort of use that as your investment. but these polk investments are not always absentee. and sometimes they begin absentee, i suspect, but then they -- the family will end up moving there. that's one of the things, if you aren't familiar with the history of the trans-mississippi south, people thought arkansas was the edge of the earth. people still think arkansas is the edge of the earth. so you know in 1860 that they thought that was the case. so, for example, one of james k. polk's cousins, i'm going to use the very vague word cousin. a susan polk, she marries a
planter named kenneth rainer. sometimes they live on the plantation and sometimes they don't. he sort of blames her. like she doesn't want to go there. she won't go past memphis, supposedly. and, you know, so sometimes they will -- people refuse. they'll invest but refuse to actually settle there. or it takes them some time to sort of pull the trigger and move to arkansas, okay, to the other side of the river. now one of the patriarchs of a branch of the polk family did make his home in phillips county, arkansas, and was very prosperous. william wilson "stingy bill" polk. i'm really excited about that. if i'm right about this, he's james k. polk's ucncle. we can fight that out. you all fix it for me if i'm wrong about that. so he's apparently the family knows him as stingy bill.
he's not that stingy because he loaned the president-elect $9,000. that $9,000 is created on the backs of enslaved people in phillips county, arkansas, in the 1840s. 1830s and 1840s. and so he had been in murray county, tennessee. he moved to hardeman county tennessee, but by 1840 in phillips county, arkansas. i'm pulling some of this straight from that polk correspondence. and, according to those notes, he lends this $9,000 to james k. polk and then kind of not so subtly hints around he'd like an appointment for thomas polk with the post office in missourior somewhere. this is where i get hung up because i'm not sure because his son is named thomas but then there's a bunch of other thomas polks. but the point is that's the network that james k. polk is plugged into. land speculation, slaves, political power. i'm kind of giving the epilogue
of one of the presentations we heard this morning about the expansion of land holdings and consolidation of power by the polk family. in earlier years. stingy bill died in october 1848. buried in phillips county, arkansas. that plantation is inherited by his children and they, at least one of them, sticks around and continued to do very well. if you follow that particular holding through the census, it looks like it shrinks as far as a number of enslaved people held on. it gets down to 50 but that's because thomas has to give some to his siblings. so the family is still definitely benefiting from this. >> we've got to understand polk as part of this network, okay? and one of the things that i have noticed earlier in -- i sort of -- peaking here and there on scholarship of polk is sometimes we write about him as sort of a product of his time.
not as much as a creator of that system. that's one of the things i've enjoyed about this conference is to see that's being fixed. polk the expansionist. the polk family is sort of part of this expansion into the old southwest. i encourage us to keep thinking in that way. james k. polk and his family as creators of this slave system, right? he's of this generation that learns how to get the most out of the old southwest as possible. he gets it from those -- that kind of work like from his dad, from his father's cousin, colonel william polk. also they speculate in land, diversified, took advantage of what was available. so, of course, james k. polk is watching these -- this business, you know, very carefully. he's forging partnerships. in fact, when a man who has gone down in history as chunky jack kept running -- i'm full of
these. chunky jack kept running away from polk mississippi plantation to arkansas because arkansas is the end of the earth, okay? this is polk's mississippi plantation. chunky jack keeps running off to arkansas. the morass. nobody is going to find him. all he has to do is plug into those connections, political, family, all the above to help him retake chunky jack. here's something that's interesting about william doosenberry's wonderful contribution to this scholarship is that you can kind of tell in slave master president that historians of slavery weren't quite ready to outright call these operations what they were, right? you know, investment, capitalist enterprises. not everyone is enamored with the new histories of capitalism and slavery. i would enjoy watching people
duke that out also. but i think it is -- it's really helpful for this context to understand polk in this way. but in doosenberry's book he uses the word investment and places it in quotation marks. he talks about how somebody viewed the plantation as an investment. of course it's an investment. what else could it be, right? we understand slavery is a social system. we also have to understand it, you know, as an investment, right? so james k. polk is watching these things closely. that was going to be him and sarah's retirement plan, right? and then he doesn't live very long so, of course, that's one of the major ways that sarah polk is, you know, financially stable. very precarious to be widowed in that time, even if you were a white woman, widow of a president.
that financial sta bill pitt bi important. and they're so interested in protecting the investment, okay, that sarah polk files a claim with the southern plains commission in the 1870s for this mississippi plantation. and she was ready, y'all. there was already a letter in her overseer's hands during the war that said, please respect my property, federal forces. please don't take the stuff. and so then, according to this claim, when union soldiers show up in august 1863, the overseer hands them -- i think they're calling it protection paper. and it doesn't work. so then the overseer in march '64 writes out a letter detailing what was taken from this plantation. and he includes the enslaved people who left. there's like ten. and names them.
and possibly in hopes that, you know, they might get reimbursed. they don't know what's going to happen at that point. so this is, we should understand, it's an investment. we should understand it as part of this network, okay? there's some really great new scholarship coming out. stephanie jones rogers has some good stuff on women as slavers. and then, of course, amy greenberg has -- we're going to hear all about her excellent work as well. and so i would say that, you know, let's get comfortable with continuing the comments that i've been hearing at this symposium about not just polk as an expansionist like politically, but as somebody who is part of -- actively part of creating this system if the roots of american capitalism are in american -- the growth of american slavery in this time period. then we've got to look at james
k. polk, and columbia, tennessee. that's where they are sort of launching this assault, if you will, to sort of take over and create these networks in the old southwest. so that's just a little bit of what i've been thinking about those things. thanks. [ applause ] >> i'll never forget chunky jack. i would like to introduce now dr. rachel shelden. dr. shelden is associate professor of history at the university of oklahoma right now but will soon be moving to penn state to direct the richards civil war era center. she's the author of "washington brotherhood," "politics, social life and the coming of the civil war" which received honorable mention for the wiley silver prize for the best first book on the american civil war. please welcome dr. shelden.
[ applause ] >> thank you so much. thank you all for being here. thank you to michael for inviting me. this has been really educational so far. i'm really enjoying my time. i hope all of you are, too. i'm not going to talk a long time. i promise to stay under 15 minutes. but i want to spend the time i do have talking about a member of polk inner circle that you may not know much about. supreme court associate justice john catherine. i've heard a lot of papers today that reference letters to john catrin but without any context about who he was. he doesn't get the same kind of attention that some of his supreme court contemporaries like joseph storey or roger tawney do. but it's a mistake to overlook this man because he was a critical behind the scenes
player in the mid-19th century and particularly in james k. polk's life. getting to know catrin helps us to better understand how the supreme court fits into the political culture of the mid-19th century. we're lucky to have daniel walker howe here as part of this conference. i'd like to borrow howe's definition of political culture to help explain what i mean. in his really important book, the political culture of the american whigs, he talks about the unspoken or rarely spoken system of beliefs, attitudes, modes of operation and especially methods of solving problems underlying american politics. this is the key to understanding political culture. you may be thinking, we're about to talk about a supreme court justice. why we are talking about political culture? how does plul culture apply here? court observers and many of the justices today would have you believe that the court is
apolitical, right? that it is not involved in the political system whatsoever. and i will leave the current system and questions about that maybe to a later time. but in terms of the 19th century, we're going to talk about the supreme court in the 19th century, and james k. polk's era in particular. we need to completely erase the idea of an apolitical supreme court from our minds. reframing the catron/polk relationship from the perspective of political culture. those unspoken or rarely spoken beliefs, attitudes and methods, gives us a much more meaningful picture of how the federal government operated in the mid-19th century. so there are a number of elements that make up this political culture of the court in this period. but as i talk about polk and catron's relationship, i want you to keep three in mind. the first element i might call fluidity. governance was just messier in
the mid-19th century. and what i mean by this is that because of the nature of political networks in this period, there was considerable overlap and less hardened boundaries between the branches of government, the levels of government and political organizations. so seeing the supreme court in the context of this more fluid political system helps to make sense of the justices' behavior in this period and the relationship between polk and catron clearly illustrates this. the second element we might talk about as ethics. now judicial ethics of the kind we imagine today did not exist in the 19th century. we didn't really start writing treatises on judicial ethics until the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century with the professionalization of the law. but that does not mean this was just a period of intense corruption where anything went. instead, we have to recognize that judges policed their own behavior in the context of
political ethics. a much more discussed concept in this period. so as a result, judges behaved in ways that we often think as political today as out of the bounds of what was judicially appropriate. but that seemed perfectly appropriate to americans at the time. so catron is going to engage in deeply political behavior from our modern perspective in his relationship with polk. this remained purely ethical from both perspectives and other americans. the final element is soesiablity. as many of you know, the political culture of the mid-19th century was an intensely social experience. political negotiation, networking and alliances were played out not only in official political spaces like the capitol and the white house, but also in social ones, in boarding houses and hotels. at parties and dinners, and even through the complexities of
washington etiquette. to understand how members of the supreme court fit into american politics, we have to keep this in mind. social spaces are where a lot of political discussion happened. and again, polk and catron's social experiences and interactions serve as a perfect model for seeing this. so as a result of these ethical, fluid and social considerations, what really matters to understanding the way judges fit in the political culture of the period is to think about networks. political networks. to think about how men like polk and catron operated as part of a deeply personal political system. okay. so let me tell you a little bit about polk and catron. the two men were actually distantly related through marriage. their wives were both from the childress family and i learned from amy greenberg last night they were maybe third cousins. a little unsure. but the catrons and polks became
close. they spent ample time together both in tennessee and in washington. john catron was actually close with both polks, as i'm sure amy will discuss later. he was even a confidante of sarah's. and these families retained their relationships while catron sat on the supreme court and polk sat in congress and the white house. so critically, the relationship between the polks and the catrons, like many political families of the era, was deep seeded, deeply political and deeply partisan. polk and catron were also connected through the politics of tennessee whereas we heard they were strong allies of andrew jackson. polk helped get jackson elected to the senate which helped earn him a political friend for life and jackson rewarded catron's political friendship with a seat on the supreme court in 1837. and political friendship is the key phrase there because politics is how presidents decided on their supreme court nominees.
you may know that 19th century justices did not have the same kinds of credentials as they do today. state and federal judges often moved seamlessly between traditional political positions, such as state representative or lieutenant governor. then into the judiciary. and then back into those political positions. and so as a result, there were really no feeder courts from which presidents could find a farm team of suitable supreme court judges as they often do today. instead, political experience was often the best indicator for who was going to join the supreme court. 19th century presidents typically made supreme court nominations squarely based on partisan reasoning, rewarding political friends with a job in the judiciary. to give you some sense of this, in 1844, when polk received the nomination for president, catron was serving on the bench with eight other men.
he was the only justice of these nine who did not have experience working in some other official political office. whether executive or legislative. and one of only two to have never served in the federal government in one of those offices. the other person had been lieutenant governor of virginia. this somewhat masks catron's political acumen, however. he may not have come from a traditional political office, but he did have very clear political connections. in short, catron was very involved in the newspaper business. now as many of you know, newspapers in the 19th century were run by political organizations. members of a political party would come together and publish a paper dedicated to the policies of a particular party. in fact, a political party couldn't really operate without the use of a newspaper, in part because they had to print ballots for elections. knowing this helps us to situate
catron's influence in the political world of tennessee and the united states. because catron was a critical backer financially of the nashville union which was a paper dedicated to democratic politics. very involved in helping get martin van buren elected in 1836. catron helped not only support the paper financially but also occasionally wrote editorials for the paper. the critical space where political opinions could be fleshed out. i wonder what would happen if we found out some modern supreme court justices were writing editorials in their home state papers? might be kind of interest iing. the nomination was not simply about constitutional principles. these men were overwhelmingly rewarded for their political commitments not their judicial service. what's more, confirmation as a supreme court justice did not bring an end to the close
relationships with their political friends. while today we might be uncomfortable with a justice speaking openly about politics after assuming his role on the supreme bench, this raised no eyebrows really in the mid-19th century. it was no surprise then that given catron's close relationship with polk, the former was deeply involved. polk was in congress and catron on the court, the two men often discussed congressional legislation. sometimes this had to do with bills regarding the judiciary and other times not. catron had a keen about, for example in the democratic strategy for replacing the second bank of the united states and offered his friend advice for how to effect a reasonable solution. but the political relationship was more than just discussion. when a judiciary bill that the other supreme court justices didn't like came up for discussion in the house, they implored catron to convince polk
to get rid of it to make sure it did not pass. this maneuvering was possible because catron and polk lived together in washington when both men served there. now again, this may seem odd to you as a supreme court justice, but justices often lived in the same boarding houses and hotels as members of congress. and so there was nothing amiss when the two men coordinated lodgings before the supreme court sessions. one session they ended up at jonathan elliott's boarding house. they shared quarters and attended parties and dinners together and socialized regularly. s as i showed in my first book, the kind of conversation that happened at these parties was drip with political importance. they talked politics all the time in social spaces. when polk retired from
washington to run for governor of tennessee, catron is going to make -- remain a close political friend there. the two men continued to discuss federal politics but also state level offices and issues. catron also routinely visited with the polks while riding circuit in tennessee. this was sort of the 19th century oddity by which supreme court justices spent a few months in washington and then the remainder of their time riding circuit. so going to the courts on their particular circuit. catron's 6th circuit included tennessee. he spent several weeks hearing cases there. and he visited with the polks and the two men discussed strategy in the state legislature. just the two of them and with other political allies. cat ron was righting about political gossip from the supreme court chamber to both james and sarah. the other critical activity that
catron engaged in during polk's time as governor was president making. initially catron worked to develop a plan to push for polk's nomination as vice president as mark told us just a little bit ago. catron quickly discovered he had an opportunity to get polk into the first chair. and so catron lobbied congressmen and strategized with other allies to promote polk's place on the ticket. once nominated, he could rely on him to become one of his strongest advocates on the ground. catron worked his contacts in nashville and in washington to try to effect polk's nomination. and he even opened his house to james and sarah to serve as something of a political parlor for entertaining allies and essentially campaigning. catron and several of polk's other allies work to develop policy ideas and exchange ideas about sarah's role in the
campaign as well. while we might feel uncomfortable with this kind of overpoliticking by a supreme court justice on behalf of a presidential candidate today, there was nothing really amiss in the 19th century. if anything, this was small potatoes. the line between the federal, judicial and executive departments was so blurry in this period that several of catron's brother judges went beyond advocating for a political friend and just ran for president themselves. this happened to just about half the justices in this period are interested in becoming president. once polk is elected president, catron was a routine vuftor to the white house during his presidential years, rnt acting with him in formal and political spaces. he visited polk at his office and was even known to sit with the president while he entertained congress members and cabinet members presenting official business. he'd park himself in a seat in polk's office and people would come in and talk to polk about
these various bills and catron just would weigh in from his seat in the room. in the evening, the catrons often dined with the polks, sometimes with other members of the cabinet -- of the supreme court. cabinet officials and congressmen, and sometimes in more intimate settings. and just as in polks years as a congressman, the two men talked politics openly in these spaces. so i've given you a little sketch of polk and catron's relationship as a window into the political culture of the 19th century and the supreme court's place in it. and i just want to reiterate that if we can see the political friendship between these two men, we can better understand how americans at that time envisioned the role of judges in the federal government and more generally in essence, we have to stop thinking about the 19th century court as outside the political system and rather as
an integral part of not just the judicial decision making but also the politics of the era. thank you very much. [ applause ] >> i'm going to introduce our fearless leader, john peniero from aquinas college in michigan. the award winning "missionaries of republicanism." the history of the mexican-american war. >> i'd like to start by thanking the polk project for inviting me. when i think about the polk project and series like this and the paper series, especially at a small college with hardly any travel budget is kind of nih funded projects really help out quite a bit. i want to give a plug for those
because this will end up on c-span which may also be funded. so the title of this is james k. polk as war president. as commander in chief, polk oversaw a huge military effort in the mexican american war. as american soldierses invaded mexico by land and sea and one of the most successful military campaigns of the 19th century. my goal of this prev talk based on a longer essay of mine and a companion to the antibellum presidents is to access polk's performance as a war president. historians have never lacked interest in his culpability for the mexican/american war. the relevant question to me is whether polk helped or hindered the war effort with his temperament, his partisanship and his micromanagement. polk was a grand strategist who understood the good wartime leadership involves not just
overseeing military operations, but also tending to domestuc krrgss considerations. polk recognized the dangers of too fanatical an american exceptionalism. as i try to show in my book, this attuned him to the war's potential complications related to religion. he foresaw the pitfalls of the political religious environment, even as he sought allies in the u.s. congress, assessed his commanders and decided how best to, quote/unquote, conquer a peace. at the same time he had to negotiate the american aversion to a large regular army and try to tamp down intense partisanship, including his own. all this he did successfully. a president's wartime leadership is not just measured by how well he directs the war effort but also how he responds to politicking, opposition and dissent. the expertise polk gained in
congress as speaker during the 1830s served him well except for his failed scheme of appointing lieutenant general so that a democrat might hold a higher rank than general winfield scott who was a whig. he received everything he requested from congress in spite of whig and native american party resistance. more significant to how polk dealt with anti-war opposition is he followed madison's model. unlike john adams, abraham lincoln, woodrow wilson and franklin roosevelt, polk resisted the temptation to curb american civil liberties in the name of national emergency. earlier it was emphasized in the talk relating it to polk's sense of his own republican ideology. during the war, polk never strayed from his goal of securing california, an michment that would open the basin to u.s. trade and keep the most
valuable part of the west coast out of british hands. this meant holding northern mexico in the hope that the mexicans retreat. when that did not happen, polk ordered scott into veracruz. this was neither an easy decision nor one his advisers fully supported. polk had to lead and did so, convincing a doubtful cabinet that taking the fight to mexico would be more fruitful than merely defending california and new mexico while waiting for mexico to recognize the conquest. polk argues bauer, quote, had an entirely unrealistic view of the war, end quote. once it came because he thought california could be gained quickly with very little military effort. to bolster this assertion, bauer cites thomas hart benton, one of his early advisers, and a man engaged in as many machinations as the president whom he secretly plotted against. benton complained that the polk administration was filled with peaceful men who wanted only
enough war to accomplish their goals. more pacifistic trepidation than the typical use of war as an instrument of state craft. quote, never were men less imbued with military spirit, benton says. now benton, it should be said, had his sights set on the high military post. the highest of all he wanted to be lieutenant general. doing that would have marked the reappearance of the rank for the first time since 1798. that was when george washington briefly held that. benton told polk he would only serve if he could be scott's superior. so i think his criticism of polk's lack of marshal spirit which bauer seems to take at face value must therefore be read in light of his own aurgans and ambition. polk arrived at cabinet meetings with a good grasp of the necessary strategy and foresaw difficulties that many of his generals did not. within his limited powers he tried where he could to prevent the war from taking on an overtly anti-catholic character.
a conquest of the entirety of mexico also would have led to a longer and much more bloody conflict. here, too, polk was the key player in deflating the all-mexico movement. this in turn helped avoid a long guerrilla war. polk never wavered from the limited goal for which the war was being fought. polk did gradually escalate, however, the mexican war. but he did so not out of conflict of version or out of domestic political considerations. he did so out of frustration. as norman gravener points out, his limited goals never changed. only his tactics. the desire to wage war in the most limited way possible still congruent with one's objectives is not a bad predilection in a wartime president. to say that polk wanted a quick war and was confident he could get one on the cheap is to say that polk was like almost every other american president who ever led the country into war with the exception maybe of roosevelt and wilson.
prior to the civil war, presidents, governors and congress all played a role in fielding reg uiments and appointing officers. it was politicized long before polk took office. understanding it is critical if one is to separate partisanship of the intemperate and imprudent kind from rational party loyalty or politicization in pursuit of policy and wartime goals. polk's two leading generals, zachary taylor and winfield scott, were whigs, but polk did not dislike scott merely because he was a whig. it didn't hurt. that wasn't the only reason. the two men disagreed on strategy and tactics. what scott understood that polk did not is that logistically it would take a great deal of time to recruit and mobilize an army of volunteers. what scott saw as planning, polk viewed as delay. polk thought scott was too plotting to see the big picture,
which included gaining california and a palatable treaty and excluded remaining in washington city and taking the time to plot the perfect war against mexico. to his credit and much to his own dismay, polk knew scott was the best general in the united states. this does not mean, of course, polk trusted scott. he did not, but was willing to use him to win the war before discarding him amid a false controversy engineered by gideon pillow, one of polk's appointees. once the u.s. army controlled mexico city, that is. crass and unethical this was, but it led to victory and achieved polk's limited goals. there is no doubt polk made partisan appointments. all generals he appointed in the war were democrats. this was not beyond the norm.
aspiring politicians in every state jockey for position hoping to turn battlefield glory into a statehouse or congressional seat. it is no coincidence that scott's replacement, the democrat general butler, ran against taylor for the presidency in 1848. nor is it a coincidence that scott finally did run for president as a whig in 1852. that year he was beaten by franklin pierce whom polk had raised to the rank of brigadier general during the mexican war. this may not have been the best way to choose officers who will lead men into battle or to pick presidents for that matter. but it was the american way in the age of jackson. zachary taylor's political leanings were not explicitly known at the start of the war. but as presidential aspirations soon became the worst kept skrept in washington city, thanks to his november 1846 letter to general edmond gaines. in the gaines letter, taylor
criticizes polk, criticizes scott, criticizes scott's strategy and declares the value of any land the united states might win not worth, quote, the amount of blood and treasure which must be expended. this letter convinced polk beyond any doubt that taylor was a disloyal general. the only thing that kept the president from removing taylor was the general's popularity following buena vista. polk assumed that his generals operated on the same democratic, partisan and populist notions that he did. whig governors surely did so. and such an atmosphere would it not be unwise for polk to appoint whigs to lead a war so vociferously denounced by the same whigs who, after all, originally cast their votes in favor of declaring war. it is best to appraise polk in the context of jacksonnian era politics and the rational choices a president might make given the antebellum political
structure. he personalized significant disagreements. he made that in common with the historical profession perhaps. polk saw no reason why his party should not benefit from presidential patronage when it came, too pointing officers to new regiments and brigades. the president's partisanship was the means by which he intended to ensure the army fought the war he wanted it to fight. it's effect on future elections was to him merely a bonus. an important one, but a bonus nonetheless. many historians characterize polk careful attention to detail as, in john seigenthaler's words, relentless micromanagement. there is no doubt about it. polk was in what contemporary terms we would call a micromanager. which is to say he forcefully
and directly oversaw minutia most others would have delegated. and even second-guessed decisions in areas he had no professional training. such as the planning by scott or taylor. the important question is whether this hindered or helped in the war against mexico. did american victory occur in spite of polk's micromanagement in other words? seigenthaler argues that polk's leadership style, especially with the war department hindered rather than benefited the war effort. this is doubly true of polk's attempt at arm chair control of his generals, according to seigenthaler. what seigenthaler calls relentless micromanagement, i call, in my first book manifest ambition, an energetic management style. this is why, quote, the minimal structure of the war department in 1846 suited polk's temperament and controlling personality, end quote. this minimal structure consisted of ten staff departments, each
of which answered to the general in chief. the general in chief in turn took orders from the secretary of war who answered to the president. life-long civil servants, the heads of these departments jealously guarded their bureaucratic turf from administration to administration. since so many of them were whigs, during the war, they challenged polk's exploitation of officer appointments and intentionally delayed orders they did not like. the most troublesome war department bureaucrat to give you one example was colonel robert jones. every bit of correspondence, every order, passed through the agitant general's office. and this gave jones, a whig, a great deal of power. he thwarted polk wherever he could, particularly in the realm of officer appointments. at one point, jones colluded with scott to counter marcys and that's polk's request to increase the number of generals.
secretary marcy was too clueless to detect this but polk was not. someone said earlier politics may have been polk's religion. we can argue about that, but, it is prudent at the least when faced with a partisan war department, ambitiously partisan generals and an already politicized military system to monitor closely one's own generals and war department purg personnel. it was ineffective politically. during the war, polk and secretary marcy oversaw a streamlining of the army's general regulations. the end result virtually ignored the role of the staff departments that have become so troublesome for polk. the move had a clear managerial purpose related to the president's wartime goals. while it might have hindered the abilitity to thwarting polk it d not affect battlefield readinessor the outcome of the
war. polk also personally reviewed the war department budget during the mexican war, a task previously undertaken by middle level treasury department officials. relentless micromanagement this was for sure, i think. but it occurred after polk caught marcy attempting to funnel money through the war department to his own pet political project, a series of internal improvements. whether the federal government should fund the construction of internal improvements was one of the top contentious issues of the jacksonian issue along with banking and protective tariff. whigs favored all three. most democrats opposed them. polk's veto of the river was one of the signature moves of his presidency, similar to his mentor andrew jackson's veto of the maze vilville road. it could have caused damage to polk. polk was not the first modern president in the commanding way
theodore roosevelt was. the powers he irrigated passed away with the treaty of guadalupe hidalgo. democratic partisanship, suspicious temperament and penchant to micro manage along with his own self-discipline and self-conscious unwillingness to attack civil liberties. while with the exception of self-discipline these might work together or separately to hinder the prosecution of war, in polk's case, they operated together to make him an efficient and ultimately successful commander in chief during the mexican american war. thank you. [ applause ] now i'd like to introduce aaron crawford who may have the best title of any of us up here today. aaron crawford, formerly of the center for presidential history
at southern methodist university has just begun his tenure as editor of the papers of andrew jackson at the university of tennessee and working on a monograph about presidential memoirs. aaron is going to talk about the arresting achievements of the overshadow. the perilous re-emergence of james k. polk. >> thank you very much, john. and i also want to thank michael cohen for putting this conference together. it's an experience seeing all of my former assistant editors of the james k. polk project. and that's kind of what i want to talk about, sort of the journey i had from here.
and particularly the last five to six years that i had at the center for presidential history. in part because the project that i primarily worked on there was i primarily worked on there was an oral history of the george w. bush administration, and i really wish that polk had a relative named george w. polk. [ laughter ] >> it would have satisfied several people. it's a question that has been going around in my mind for several years simply because probably more than any other president as i moved in and out of world histories with secretary of states, secretaries of defense, people who come to events, it was about james k. polk. people seem to be kind of
gravitating towards polk, and they were republicans, which raised some interesting questions. it's had me thinki ing really about polk, and particularly about his obscure after life. this is really what polk is known for is his obscurity. [ laughter ] i can remember a day long ago during graduate school when dan feller introduced me to a wonderful essay by james thurber from 1936 called "something about polk," which is -- there's just something about polk that we can't remember anything about him. [ laughter ] and i'll quote thurber, for all of our array of presidents, there's none less memorable than james k. polk. if ten patriots picked at random
were asked to list the names of all the presidents, it is likely that most of them would leave out the name of the 11th. even if they remembered his name, surely none of them could put down a single fact about him. he was a man of no arresting achievement. now, this is in 1936 after a good 40-year effort by historians to convince americans that no one had actually had more arrests achievements than james k. polk, and they were really successful within the historical profession. but this obscurity sort of took on a life of its own, and thurber was sort of the jumping off point. you can find countless articles throughout america for the next 60 years where polk is frankly ridiculed for this obscurity. 1964, in california, students came together to form the first
james k. polk fan club, and you get the -- we get the impression that they only wanted it for their newsletter which was the slow polk, or the 1984 article in the "new york times" about polk's hometown where the journalist went and the local burger king had put a picture of polk there in the restaurant, and almost everyone who walked in thought it was the man who founded burger king. [ laughter ] this is polk's hometown, by the way, in north carolina. two or three years later, 1988 campaign when al gore, you know, debate when he's asked -- by the way, we don't get these questions anymore.
these people asked gore, if you are elected president, whose portrait are you going to hang in the oval office, and he said james k. knox. [ laughter ] now that's strange enough, but then the strange thing is that bruce babbot, another candidate said he would also hang polk's portrait up. these are people who have some appreciation for polk. you know, in 1995, america finally got around to giving polk his postage stamp. and by the end of the year you will see countless articles about how it was the worst selling stamps. in fact, one them is the innovative u.s. senate who finally gave polk his stamp in 1995, that pretty much says it all. even until last week when i was
thinking about this, sat down to watch an episode of "seinfeld," and one of the -- one of my favorite episodes, the bizarro jerry, when jerry is being set up by elaine with a potential girlfriend. when he looks at her picture and turns to the back of her picture to see her stats, the last fact is favorite president, james k. polk. that apparently seals the deal for jerry. and then, of course, i will also mention the giants. probably i'm sure everybody here associated with polk has been asked this countless times. almost everybody -- or at least the people i've talked to in the
last few years see it as this ernest effort to give polk his recognition. but even in the writing of the song, it was an exercise in obscurity. it was the song writer sitting down just pull facts out of a textbook to see if they could write a song about it. the strange thing is in the years after that, just imagine writing this song and they actually finally read a book or two and it declared polk evil and really questions, you know, the power of this song. those are just a handful of the sort of obscure, you know, polk things. but they are amassed for something far more serious, which is sort of the divergence between what historians have argued about polk and what the public has long known starting
with bancroft and eugene mccormick, there was a real effort to revive polk, giving him credit for being one of the strongest executives in american history. fairly successful, sort of crowned by 1958, the effort by harry truman when he names the four most underrated presidents saying polk is the most underrated maybe the best president, and you see this reflected in the rankings where polk by the time of arthur schlesinger's rankings you see polk in the top ten regularly. there's a real effort, a real desire to give polk his credit, but the problem is that's typically not what the public felt, and you'll often see polk emerge in these strange moments
when the public had a real problem with the mexican war and polk's prosecution of it, so when truman made his comments in 1958, it's just four years later when attorney general robert kennedy on a tour of indonesia asked questions by students about imperialism when he actually -- i think he may be the first modern official to just outright say that the war was unjustified and it was wrong, and basically that to quote him, i do not think we can be proud of that episode. starting to think about the single moment was the response of historians, alan evans who said mr. kennedy, of course, is quite entitled to his opinion, which is the old traditional one for massachusetts. in effort saying that historians
have long ago left behind this image of polk as an aggressor, an imperialist, and someone that cannot -- that america can be proud of. the other thing about this article is they go to texas and ask their responses. you'll appreciate this. they almost all responded to this as an attack on the alamo, and some really strong comments from texans, one in particular, who said i'm sure that bobby would like to come home and dismantle the alamo and put up a housing complex, which is, you know, no doubt a veiled racial attack on the --
that position. so this is really the public whenever a serious discussion of polk happens, it always happens in wartime, and it always casts serious doubt on polk as an american leader, his patriotism, and his judgment as a war leader. in probably the last serious conflict, this was -- was in 1991, in the run up to the persian gulf war, in an editorial in "the wall street journal," no less, james perry wrote this, president polk found dozens of reasons to justify his attack on mexico in 1846, but the real excuse is manifest destiny, the idea that america's future included, among
other things, all of what is now mexico and california. in essence, polk's rationale in taking this territory from a weak neighbor wasn't all that different from the iraqi leader saddam hussein in marching on kuwait. pretty much an astounding comparison from an american president. this is from "the wall street journal." you see a real continuity from a century when polk was discussed it was all about his war effort. and american officials starting in the late '90s really see this a problem particularly as they're trying to rehab, restart the u.s. relationship with mexico, when bill clinton goes to mexico city in 1997, the people that worked for him realized that they had to do a real crash course on the mexican war because what they figured out when they went there were these were people who remembered the mexican war, and they had really definite ideas about what
it meant, and to say james k. polk to them was not to raise the ghost of an obscure person. it was to raise the image of an oppressor, and so what you see is that these for four or five years between clinton and bush when they do to mexico city and try to rehab this relationship to be really sensitive about what they are doing. i think nothing is really says this more, when clinton goes on one of the -- the memorial -- one of the war memorials, he lays a wreath and refuses to make a speech. that's because no one can really agree on what to say at this moment. what can you say without somehow damaging your relationship with mexico or alienating american voters.
this is pretty much understood by moth people, which is why it became very bizarre when i moved to texas and started to talk to republicans, including people like karl rove who argued that the republicans really -- they really have to model presidents on polk, and he wasn't alone. 2012 romney argued if anybody wanted it know what his presidency would be like, it would be a presidency like james k. polk. jeb bush said the same thing in 2015. at the moment that this is occurri occurring, being in texas you can appreciate this issue, when republican party has a problem with hispanic voters, there seems to be a true disconnect or cognitive dissidence about what it means to desire to be a
president like james k. polk. and that's sort of -- i'll leave it there. i want to open up to questions. what i've come away with is exactly trying to explain to people when asked, who is james k. polk? when i say that, who is he for now? why am i hearing republicans say this? why are large donor republicans also saying james k. polk is their model? well, part of it is an effective chief executive. they seem to be dismissing or don't quite understand the baggage. i'll open it now and be very curious.
i'd like to open up the questions. before i do it, i want to point out who is james k. polk question. you didn't mention the pez dispenser. you know you've arrived in the american mind when you have one of those. >> step up here. >> picking up where aaron left off, john, i would ask you since you made a powerful argument polk was a much more efficient, competent prosecutor of the war
than we had all thought, what about the baggage? >> what about the baggage. >> it's a good question. here is why. the peril of any historian and military conflict or historical figure who has baggage, when we discuss figures, does he really love polk that much? does he see the baggage? of course. so what i did was pull from this longer essay just to wonder what we would normally consider temperamental part of his baggage, no, sir ht his investm dealings. the temperament, micromanage, scheming. the scheming is fun stuff to scu study. to think you can invite santa ana into mexico, this is a good
idea and he's in exile and he's going to help you and the spies, so he could overscheme himself, what i was thinking was how is the war so wildly successful and how would americans in and out so quickly compared to many other 19th century conflicts. it's possible some of these -- that the micromanaging can pay off. in other words, be detrimental. >> could be the weapons. >> could be the weapons. you think it's only the weapons, the flying artillery. is that your argument? >> so we're just looking -- not looking at polk. this isn't like winston church hill's description of his own leadership which seems to single handedly fight world war ii looking at memoirs, not looking at that leadership but interested in parts of polk's personality taken to be detrimental and wondering if in the jackson onion context
scheming politicization of things might work in your favor to get your policies through, et cetera, when a war, that kind of thing. yes? >> c.s. robinson, kentucky. aaron crawford is a very timely remind reminder that it's currently in vogue to look at presidential power in the white house. the study of polk also allows you to spot hypocrisy in the current debate. i'm struck by the fact that probably very few of those members of the senate who voted on the new presidential war powers act are people who represent states that came into the union as a result of the
policies of the polk administration. >> if you look at the run-up to world war i or world war ii, it's at the same time of the breakdown of mexico. again, the honest discussion and debate inch american newspapers about polk and war houpowers is pretty astounding. once you get past vietnam you don't see that. you see pieces like "wall street journal" where opinionmakers will cast their opinion. you don't see any examination like you did before about polk. this is a real important issue about polk's presidency. i think you're right. there's -- i think this explains part of the fascination with polk, which is what they really are craving is someone who has this kind of discipline but they
are astoundingly ignorant in ways. >> thank you. >> hi, i'm amy. kelly, i want to say lest anyone wonder about the investment question with the plantation, when james first broached buying the plantation sara didn't want to do it. he said, well, i am determined to make more money or lose more. that's just always summed up for me, because he's not a gambling man. he sees the writing on the wall. that's how you make the money or lose the money. >> thank you for saying that. i've been over here kicking myself because i had a skinny little paragraph that said, hey, he bought a plantation in west tennessee, sold it, bought one in tennessee. >> did terrible with the tennessee. >> that quote was in there. my eye jumped over it
apparently, so i'm so glad -- it captures it perfectly. >> i wanted to say, i really appreciated your talk. one of the things when i was writing the sara biography i had to deal with, she's a widow for 32 years. she never stops wearing black and she never stops talking about james. >> she tries to find a biographer. >> i was going to bring the biographer thing up. she kept trying to find a biographer and finally reaches out to some guy. she said, look, i'm really good friends with president johnson. he will give you an interview, et cetera, please take this on. the biographer goes, and i found in in the johnson papers and writes johnson and says, okay, i got -- mrs. polk wants me to write her husband's biography. i will only do this if you can assure me i can write a biography of him that is fair to the truth of what happened.
and he never writes back and that biography never gets writt written. even in his own life this obscurity thing is a miasma hanging over the situation. >> bancroft who writes the first biography and creates four statements, which is a total fabricati fabrication. never said this. even the very fact that polk's home doesn't survive. at a time people are memorializing president's homes they tear his down, complicit to some degree. a year ago "new york times" reporting a debate about digging polk up from the state grounds there and moving him again, which would be number four -- number three, whatever.
nobody wants him, apparently. that's the gist of some of these articles. he is -- the thur ber piece says it all. >> first of all, i want to thank you all for coming and participating in this roundtable. i want to pivot the discussion if i might. i've studied polk for many years. as time goes forward and as history is revived and reexamined, and we look at his legacy, for me the thing i find i treasure most about him may be his greatest legacy is his diaries. i think his diaries are just phenomenal work of first person writing. just throw it back to you and see what are your opinions of
his diaries and first person works and what would your assessment be of him. >> i'll let you speak to that one. >> i can't really speak to that. >> it's an extraordinary document. going back a few weeks ago, this, again, tells you everything you need to know about polk's discipline. in the printed form, it's 2,074 pag pages. it's a massive evert he did every single day once he started. while it's not particularly reflective because polk is not a particularly reflective guy, it tells you a lot about being president in the mid 19th century, what it entailed and what it meant. it is an extraordinary document and i don't think it's appreciated the way it should be. if you've ever seen this
introduction, magnificent document that establishes greatness in spite of his mediocrity. >> any other questions? >> everybody ready to forget about polk already? >> thank you very much. >> all week we're featuring american history tv as a preview of what's available every weekend on c-span3, lectures in history, american artifacts, real america, the civil war, oral histories, presidency and special coverage about american history.
enjoy american history tv now and on every weekend on c-span3. >> weeknights this month featuring american history tv programs as a preview of what's available every weekend on c-span3. tonight the life and career of general dwight d. eisenhower who became america's 34th president in 1953. we begin with historian david mills on how the world war ii partnership between u.s. army chief of staff george marshall and general eisenhower helped win the war. mr. mills is a military history professor with u.s. army command and general staff college. watch american history tv at 8:00 eastern on c-span3. >> sunday at 9:00 a.m. eastern, a washington journal and american history tv live special call in program looking back at
woodstock, the 1969 cultural and musical phenomenon. historian david far ber, author of the book "the age of great dream, america in the 1960s." joins us to take your calls. >> drugs matter. why people take drugs and the affect in the '60s and '70s is something we're wrestling with as scholars to understand. the technology of drugs -- we have david cartwright, other people who that the long and hard, imperative of the understanding not just of the '60s but history. what drugs we use at a given period and place have an incredible ability to change the direction of a given society. >> call in to talk with david far ber about the social movements of the 60s. woodstock, 50 years, sunday, 9:00 a.m. eastern. also live on american history tv
on c-span3. >> the house will be in order. >> for 40 years c-span has been providing america unfiltered coverage of congress, the white house, the supreme court, and public policy events from washington, d.c., and around the country so you can make up your own mind, created by cable in 1979. c-span is brought to you by your local cable or satellite provider. c-span, your unfiltered view of governme government. >> next on american history tv, our look at president james polk continues with scholars discussing his ancestry, politics, and policies. this is part of a conference at the university of tennessee that marked the completion of a 60-year project to assemble president polk's papers. the event hosted by east tennessee historical society.